I took a tour of a “Super Prison” and now I’m questioning my sanity!



Intro

This is my second time visiting a G4S prison. The first time was specifically to visit just the library, whereas this was an opportunity to be given a tour of the whole facility by a member of senior management. I was thrilled to have this opportunity and I attended with an open mind, but I should perhaps lay out my cards on the table before you continue reading.

This is the first of four of the “Super Prisons” the Conservative Government are building as part of their commitment to create 10,000 additional prison places. Full disclosure, I am entirely baffled as to why we’d want to dedicate time and resources to increasing prison places, rather than addressing the issues that see people end up in prison in the first place. Surely the need here is to invest in finding ways to decrease our prison population?
 Now, of course those ideas can co-exist, you can support reduction in prison places at the same time as creating space required for those serving sentences, and making prisons a more safe, secure and rehabilitative environment with positive outcomes for offenders and the communities they return to, but my frustration lies in that I can’t find any Conservative plans to decrease crime rates and prison sentencing. I can only find more police powers to arrest, and more power to hand out custodial sentences.
Imagine the difference this kind of investment could make to both the lives of victims and criminals if we focussed on stopping crime in the first place.


 Those are my views, so I do attend with a slight icky feeling around this one prison alone costing the Government £253million to build and a £300million contract to G4S to run it. Hands up, I am a little ignorant of how the finances exactly work regarding private prison contracts. I’m also aware that private prisons tend to be top performing in HMIP inspections, and generally reported as more favourable and supportive of rehabilitation by the prisoners themselves. It’s certainly not a clear-cut situation.

A quick overview of the prison in question. It is a category C prison with the capacity to house over 1500 male prisoners. Opening less than six months ago it is not fully operational yet, and housing around a quarter of the prisoners it has space for, parts of the prison are still under construction and they’re still recruiting staff. It is a “Soft Launch” in many ways, to iron out kinks with the building and regime.

First Impressions
Upon arrival it feels like arriving at a modern university or college. It doesn’t feel like a prison. There’s ample parking for staff and visitors. It’s clearly sign posted, welcoming and the main gate reception is child /family friendly. It immediately feels like a more positive space to enter.

G4S staff dress more like flight attendants than the traditional officers I’m used to seeing.

There’s a thorough check in and search process equivalent to what I’m used to working in a HMP Cat C.

Everything is brand new and shiny, we wait in an area designed for processing ROTLS. It’s like an airport lounge; stark, clean, not enough seating and really loud. The acoustics reverberate around as there’s no carpet, this is really typical of prisons, and something I’d hoped to see less of in a new build.  It is really bright and spacious, open windows lead out on to beautifully manicured outdoor areas. It’s a relaxing place, it’s well looked after and despite the occasional alarm, it’s a much calmer atmosphere than I’m used to. 

Covid Safety

We are waiting a while as they check us all in and I do my best to look approachable and try to network with colleagues. I have some great chats. Of the whole group, I am the only person wearing a face mask and I feel quite self-conscious about that. I tend to choose to wear a mask indoors and I respect individual’s choices not to, but I’m quite surprised nobody else is wearing one and no staff are wearing them (apart from when we are in healthcare where the medical staff are). This visit has invited colleagues from all over the UK to attend. We gather here from all over and walk through this community meeting staff and prisoners, and to me there’s a disconnect between the conversations we are having and the way we are acting, with regard to Covid safety.

In the networking with colleagues, we all acknowledge the ongoing issues around staff absences and prisoner isolations due to covid. Nobody I speak to is running a full regime, nobody. This means prisoners are behind their door for longer than they should be and activities, such as Education, are not happening. This is because of Covid, and yet nobody seems to be taking any measures to stop the spread. I feel like I’m going mad! Am I going mad?

Meeting the team

We are taken through to the multi- faith area to be given an introduction to the prison. 

We’ve been asked not to bring anything but ID, and as soon as the first speaker introduces themselves and their role, I forget what they’ve said and wish I had snuck a pen and notebook in (a few others have). They’re a fantastic speaker with a clearly well-rounded knowledge of the history, planning and future projection of the prison. You sense they walk the walk of everything they are saying and seem genuinely committed to rehabilitation and making the prion experience one that only has positive outcomes. They invite questions, even questions we may deem controversial or challenging. Nothing is off the table; they’re aware people have questions/suspicions and invite us to bring an open mind to what we see across the tour. They speak with a passion for prisons and rehabilitative cultures that emanates beyond just words. They acknowledge they are lucky to work here, in a place that tries to make prison as “normalised” as possible, so prisoners leave with the social, emotional, technical, knowledge and skills to thrive. They are keen to express that they do all this with safety and security at the heart of what they do. They then speak briefly about the importance of working with those with lived experience before introducing us to the next speaker whose role is entirely devised to bring a voice of lived experience to any planning, policy and procedure. They speak again with a clear conviction for making prison the most positive experience it can be. I am so enthused to hear them speak; this role should be mandatory across the estate. We have so much we can learn from listening and working with those with a lived experience. 

We are then introduced to other Senior Management before dividing in to groups. They all seem genuinely excited to show us the prison and what they are trying to achieve here. If there was a team that presented as singing from the same hymn sheet, it’s them.  I feel really positive about this and think I’ve perhaps judged too hastily. That, regardless of what the big money people are doing at the top, it is the teams on the ground who are dedicated to making a difference to and improving the lives of people who find themselves in prison that matter.

The Library

The tour begins and we head back out in to an open area that leads off to healthcare, education and the library. It is at this point that my hopes are dashed somewhat. The library is part of the open plan area, so it hasn’t got its own designated space as such. It would be hard to host a group session or provide quiet study, as you’re just open to the bustling corridor of Education and healthcare. The shelves, of which there aren’t many, are a third full. I don’t get to look at the stock or really ask any questions because …we stroll right past…we do not visit the library as part of the tour!!! It’s obviously not considered a key department. I ask if there’s a librarian and told yes there is. I follow up.
“Is it a team of staff running things across the site or …”
 before I finish my question our guide quickly answers “I don’t know” before moving on to the next thing, honestly, it’s a dagger to my heart. This is a community, a library should be at the heart of this, providing access to legal books, reading for pleasure, Storybook Dads. Shannon Trust, book groups, debate club etc. Maybe things are happening in a different way here, but it feels hard to ask more questions about the department we’ve simply strolled by on our way to those deemed more important. I also feel a little dismissed as if my guide doesn’t want to answer questions which don’t leave the prison looking so super after all, and the overall feeling of the tour is not quite the same as the main speaker who had invited queries and questions. I am not the only person to get a question passed over. Someone comments that they seem to have a lot of things in place for developing community amongst the prisoners, but how about staff cohesion in such a vast place? She answers “We are doing loads, yes we have things in place” He pushes for detail, she seems annoyed and moves on to the next thing alluding to not having time for all questions. I am not sure our guide got the memo from the main speaker that they’d be transparent, that everything isn’t ironed out yet and they are owning that and this is a process. Our guide seems to gloss over those things.  I’m deflated. But let’s keep that open mind! 

Healthcare

We are taken to healthcare. It’s pristine. There’s break out spaces, consultation rooms, treatment rooms, dentistry. It feels busy with staff and more than ready to manage the demands of over 1500 prisoners.

We only really pass through the corridors. Understandable as this is an operating healthcare suite, and I’m pleased that prisoner needs for privacy aren’t over taken by an opportunity to show off the department. 

Reception

We head to reception, here the orderly explains his role. He is clearly content within this role and genuinely feels the prison is doing a great job at receiving prisoners. It’s a policy here that arriving prisoners meet prisoners first before staff, all part of trying to embed lived experience from the get go. Someone in our group has an interest in this area but any questions/challenges they ask are met with resolutions. What if prisoners arrive with certain requirements, late at night, unexpectedly? There are action plans in place for it all. All the staff and prisoners we meet seem to echo that the prison is working well and they’re excited to see what happens next. 

Education

I’m fortunate to work in a prison that has a separate college within its grounds, and it affords us the opportunity to create as “normal” an environment as we can. As other colleagues are impressed by the department, I feel contented that the prison I’m currently working in has comparable resources. The main difference here is that there’s windows on the inner corridors so you can see in the class all the time. I’m torn as to how I feel about this. There’s not much time to get quiet alone space in a prison, we’ve established the library here can’t offer this, surely a classroom/learning environment could offer some solitude and quiet space from the bustle of the wings? I wonder if it would be challenging for learners for whom attention is already an issue to be able to see everyone passing through the corridors all the time? It also means there isn’t really any space for classroom displays as the walls are predominantly windows, this means that, other than the Art Class, I can’t tell what subjects are being taught in each space. The classrooms are all identical. As a tutor myself, I also value the occasional moment of being able to shut my door and complete all the marking and paperwork without disturbance. It’s certainly a different way of working to be in a sort of Goldfish bowl all the time. It would have been great to hear from the tutors how they found the layout.

Workshops
The workshops are very much still under construction but they are impressive. There are a lot of the usual things you’d expect to see; recycling projects, bike maintenance, trade skills etc. They have a wealth of partners across the workshops from both the private and charitable sector and there is so much potential for employment links.
The space has been made to mimic the work places on the outside as much as possible. The barber shop doesn’t feel like a prison environment at all, and along with the art/graffiti workshop it is truly impressive. Although there aren’t many workshops open, there does seem to be a positive buzz in the air where the prisoners are at work.

The gym is housed over here too. To me the Gym space seems small in relation to the population that will be housed here, but I quickly realise I must be spoilt where I work as other colleagues on the tour are really impressed with the facility and wish they had something similar.

Our guide then shows us the workshop area which is just for under 30s. She explains that they need a separate area. I am expecting her to say, because they could be vulnerable to corruption from other experienced/long term inmates, many are involved in gang related crimes and need special interventions, that their life stages are similar and many may be establishing family ties/have young families. I am not too sure exactly what I am expecting as I haven’t really come across an under 30s group before but something along those lines. However, she says it’s because “Under 30s can’t concentrate as well and need spaces for time out” ?!? Did she mix up the phrase “under 30s” with “some neurodivergent people” ? Someone in the group, who is under 30, makes a joke of being offended, I am glad he does. I am left baffled by what the group has been set up for, but it surely can’t be because, as a blanket rule, all prisoners under 30 can’t concentrate for very long. I find myself asking myself again. Am I mad? Am I going mad?
On the flipside of this, there isn’t seemingly a wing, workshop or group for older residents and this seems equally odd. A general discussion across the estate has been around how we support and manage the ageing prison population who do have a clear set of different needs to the rest of the population. But no, they’ve overlooked that for those inattentive under 30s?!

Residential units

We are then taken to see the wings (residential units). We see one still partially under construction with no residents in as of yet. It is really nicely laid out; someone comments it reminds her of her hall of residence at university. She is not wrong, except the prisoners here perhaps have more space than your average uni student. The spaces are really refreshing and feel designed with prisoner wellbeing in mind. The resources for staff seem limited. There’s not much space for them to make food or to take a break, and with a site this size I am not sure how realistic it is they will go all the way to the officer’s mess for lunch. The prison has a creative solution to this. We hear about the Uber-style bike delivery service prisoners will offer from the mess/canteen to staff across the prison. You can order your food and it’ll turn up right where you are. This sounds great and is an example of some of the really creative thinking that’s going on here. They have spaces for prisoners to “Double up”, I felt a little unsure of this as always felt doubling up prisoners with a “cell mate” was a slightly archaic practice, but colleagues inform me that some prisoners want to be doubled up. If that’s the case then these facilities are great and feel like any two-bed room in a nice hostel. I understand why prisoners have been keen to transfer here.

We are told some of the units will house specific residents.  As you’d expect, there’s a Vulnerable prisoners/Sex offender wing who will operate their own regime and remain separate from the rest of the population

There’s also what our guide calls the “Learning Disabilities” wing. I am a bit unsure about this. Neurodivergences and Learning disabilities present in many different ways, and as with any community, be that within prison or outside of it, should we not be adapting to fit their needs rather than creating a separate system for people with these needs? Is it appropriate to segregate them in the same way sexual offenders are segregated? Is this welcomed by the prisoners? Who decides they have a need to be on this wing? I have so many questions! We don’t get to see the unit, and our guide explains they have plans to build a sensory room. I am left unsure if this is an example of the “blue sky creative thinking” that is going to be great or if it’s really missing the point and not reading the room about how we should be supporting these prisoners? Hands up I don’t know enough about this but my gut feeling tells me that a wing isn’t going to cut it, this is a whole cultural change that’s required.
A 2017 report said 25% of prisoners were autistic (catch22.org.uk)
60% have communication issues (Learning disabilities.org.uk)
and the CJJ inspection recently highlighted that we likely aren’t catching those numbers correctly and they could be higher!?
So maybe this unit is just what we need and without seeing it operating I am speculating, but it feels like a strange plaster that ticks a box of a much bigger issue. I’d love to know what colleagues with more experience in this field would think or prisoners who are chosen to live on this unit.

 Visits centre

We end our tour at the visitors’ centre. It is wonderful. The floor is carpeted and this brings me such joy. I can’t tell you how loud and manic visitors centres are when all those voices start reverberating around the room. This feels quieter, calmer and cosier just with the simple acoustic measure of having carpeted floor.

Prisoners wear bands on their arm rather than a prison “uniform”, the layout, procedures and relationship between prisoners, staff and families is all designed to make this feel like you’re visiting Dad, husband, relative etc in a “normal” space. As best as they can, within the remit of safety and security, they’ve made this not feel like a prison. The seating area leads out on to a courtyard, a member of the visits team say they planted seeds with visiting children out there for Earth Day not long ago. They are working with charities to support families attending the visits centre. It feels like something they’ve definitely got right.
A member of our group asks about “Purple visits” (A secure prisoner video calling service) and we are told it isn’t running at the moment but this is a prison-wide issue. The fact it’s prison wide just reminds me that actually this money could have been better spent improving the resources and access to the resources we already have in place in prisons. Not everyone is going to be able to travel to a prison, or make it for the strict visiting times, so we can develop these wonderful visit centres but really the money needs to be in making those video calls accessible to all, surely? We can smooth the visit for families, but seed planting doesn’t undo the trauma of having a parent in custody. Another department that leaves me not knowing quite how I feel about all this.

Final thoughts
Overall, I feel like the staff and the interventions here are right. They are doing great things. But when I zoom out and look at the bigger picture the resources seem to be in the wrong places. We need preventions not plasters and cures (or, ok we need both, but the pendulum seems to be swinging rather in favour of the plasters with this commitment to prison places, and my spider senses tell me that’s not what we should be doing)


All in all, I am still divided about the pros and cons of this place. It will be interesting to see how the service develops. The people are going to be what makes the place though that’s for sure, and from what I’ve seen I believe the prisoners and staff alike, on the whole, are determined to see this blossom, to see it positively impact the lives of those effected by custodial sentences. I am grateful that they opened up the space for a tour, that they took the time to answer (some of) the questions we had. I am happy for those in custody at this prison who see genuine opportunity in the employment and ROTL possibilities here, who can keep, mend or start to build important family ties.  I feel a relief for victims of crime that this place is geared towards returning offenders to the community rehabilitated. If it works, we can all win. I guess I’d rather focus on solutions for how we can all, quite simply, stop playing this game on such a giant scale.

I took a tour of a “Super Prison” and now I’m questioning my sanity!